When it comes to dancing, Janice Sokansanj, the director of Michigan Academy of Dance & Music in Dexter, has come to realize the old cliche is true: “If you build it, they will come.”
Sokansanj didn’t build a baseball diamond, but she started with an idea that might have been considered a diamond in the rough when she dreamt up Fun Fridays, a dance class for special needs children in the community. The class is held every Friday from 4:30-5:30 p.m. at the studio on Dexter-Ann Arbor Road, run by Wayne State University alumna Sara Chambors.
"We had a few parents come to us and asked if we could put a class together," Sokansanj said. "We were delighted to come up with a structure for the class and offer it for special needs children."
Sokansanj immediately went to work and found dancers trained in occupational therapy who were willing to teach the class. With six students enrolled, the class began in September and interest has continued to grow.
Chambors said the benefits for the special needs dancers are many. There is socialization. Cognitive and motor skills are improved as the dancers learn how to dance and memorize the specific steps to that dance.
"It's a challenge, but it offers kids a chance to socialize and move around," Sokansanj said. "Dance and music is good for the brain. We also offer a place where the kids feels safe to be creative and do things together.
"The kids see the class as something special at the end of the week. Physical activity for anyone helps the body feel better."
Chambors agreed, comparing the class to "sneaky therapy."
Parent Anne Schmidt said she is grateful the program is available to local families.
"There's not a lot offered in terms of social or recreational events for kids with special needs," she said. "This is similar to a friend calling you up to go grab a beer. It's a great social outlet."
Chambors admits she was nervous when she first signed on to teach the class.
"With Autism, there is a spectrum, so you don't really know what you are going to get when you take on a class with special needs students," she said. "It's taken a couple of classes to get in the groove, but I learned pretty quick that special needs kids can surprise you. They can do more than they let on; I like to push them. They have a lot of fun here after a week of school."
Chambors also teaches a "Happy Dancing Feet" class for toddlers twice a week. The experience has opened her up to the possibility of continuing her career in pediatric care in the future.
"Teaching is a good thing for me," she said. "I don't dance like I used to due to an injury in college, so it's nice to be able to work with kids. I really enjoy occupational therapy."
Studio offers 'create a class' option
Sokansanj said "Fun Fridays" are just one way her studio has given back to the community since opening its doors seven years ago. The studio also offers more than 60 fitness classes, and 55 dance classes.
"We're always looking to add more classes," she said. "We're willing to work with anyone who comes to us with an idea. If they get three or four kids together, and it fits into our schedule, we can create a class for them. A lot of our programs are based on what people ask for."
In addition to traditional dance classes (ballet, hip hop, etc.), the studio offers a world dance program, dancing programs for young children, and a competitive dance team.
"Our aim is to have fun," Sokansanj said. "At the end of the day, we want to teach adults and kids dance in a fun, encouraging environment."
The studio is currently running a special for new members, that includes $44 for unlimited classes the first month. Membership fee is $25.